Imagine if your food was tainted with an addictive, dangerous substance without your consent. Now imagine that you were consuming it regularly - several times a day, in fact.
Over time, it caused you to inch closer and closer to a life of high blood pressure medication, heart attack scares and obesity. Imagine consuming between three and four cups per week of this substance - every week.
How would it feel to know your parents, children, and friends were subject to this as well?
Finally, what would you think if you knew the conventional wisdom for managing these resulting health problems dictated eating a diet containing more of the substance that contributed to their development in the first place?
The Bitter Reality of Sugar Intake
Enter the scary truth of the American diet.
As a whole, we’re a population scared of dietary fat. We consume foods that have been modified to remove or reduce it as much as possible. In turn, food manufacturers often replace the fat with sugar to make these modified foods palatable.
The result? More than ever, we consumer greater amounts of sugar - often without even realizing it. The average American will consume 63 pounds of high fructose corn syrup this year. We are literally addicted to sugar, arguably the most important thing to avoid for long-term health and weight loss success.
In his book Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It, Gary Taubes states that processed carbohydrates and sugars “literally make us fat, and by driving us to accumulate fat, they make us hungrier and they make us sedentary. This is the fundamental reality of why we fatten.”
Although drinking your coffee black and faithfully passing by the candy dish are admirable, those habits are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to avoiding the sneaky added sugar that silently permeates our food supply.
The Standard American Diet is so prevalently saturated with added sugars - sugars that are not naturally occurring (such as those in fruits, vegetables and dairy) - that our taste buds now require obscene amounts to even detect sweetness.
The details of the metabolic detriments and health consequences from chronic added sugar consumption could fill a book on their own (although you can easily look around at our nation’s health care crisis for the “Cliffs Notes” version).
Today we’ll highlight the basics of how to spot added sugar on labels with strategic next steps for starting your journey toward a lower sugar diet.
Where Is It Coming From?
Overt, obvious sources of added sugar are candy, soda pop, sports drinks, cookies, cakes and desserts. But what about those of us who skip dessert and sweetened drinks?
Added sugars are those not naturally occurring in foods, such as those found in fruits and vegetables and lactose sugar found in dairy. Whether it’s widely maligned high fructose corn syrup or a local, organic raw honey, the impact on our bodies is actually strikingly similar.
Let’s start by checking your salad dressing. And soup crackers. Don’t forget about ketchup, BBQ sauce, bacon, lunch meat, nonfat lattes and canned soup. Even your protein bar isn’t safe from this malicious commodity!
Scan the ingredient list not only for “sugar” but for cane sugar, brown sugar, cane syrup, maple syrup, evaporated cane juice, fruit juice concentrate, molasses, invert sugar, sucrose, maltose, coconut sugar, and other “-ose” ingredients.
Some may sound innocent, but don’t be fooled.
For example, there has been a big trend in the last few years towards using agave nectar. Agave is incredibly high in dangerous fructose and can significantly thwart not only your weight loss efforts but your path to optimal health as well. Food processing companies can list each individual type of sugar on the ingredient list separately, therefore being able to drop the hidden sources lower and lower on the list.
Given how the body processes these sugars (a topic for another post), there is no “safe” amount of added sugar in our diets.
My clients have seen the greatest success not by adding up grams from nutrition labels but by truly focusing on the ingredient list and eliminating foods that contain added sugars as much as possible. We even had a challenge in our Life Time Weight Loss Support Group to do this for one week, and participants were shocked at how difficult it is to avoid. What are we to do?
How to Avoid Added Sugars
Become a label king/queen.
Heightening your awareness is the first step. This week, commit to checking the ingredient list on the labels of the foods you consume. Keep a running list of all the foods you come across with added sugar that you would normally eat. Oftentimes, keeping this ever-lengthening tally gets sickening enough that you naturally start to change your habits.
Use stevia, xylitol and erythritol as a stepping stone.
These are more natural sugar substitutes than sucralose, aspartame, saccharin, and other chemically-derived sweeteners. Although “natural” does not inherently mean “healthy,” these options can play an appropriate role in your journey when you desire the occasional treat.
Find these options at specialty grocery stores, health food shops or online. Get familiar with them by creating simple recipes for things you would like to continue eating on occasion anyway like barbecue sauce.
One note: because of the sometimes bitter aftertaste of unprocessed stevia, some recipes call for an occasional gram or two of sugar. This is not a bad option given that other versions would be loaded completely with sugar.
Tone down your taste buds.
While the above options are great to make yourself a healthier version of a sauce or treat, realize that “better” is not always the same as “nourishing.” A cupcake made with stevia and erythritol is eons better for you than a sugar-sweetened cupcake; however, it should still be viewed as a dessert. Be sure you’re not replacing nourishing, unprocessed whole foods in your diet because you assume that an “added sugar-free” dessert is a nutritional freebie.
Go cold turkey.
I’ve asked a lot of my clients to identify the most helpful component in achieving a (mostly) "added-sugar free" diet. The general consensus is to eliminate it 100%.
This is certainly a challenge given the sugar-saturated reality of the American food supply, but I recommend you take it week by week- day by day even. Realize that focusing on 7-9 servings of non-starchy vegetables per day, unprocessed fats (e.g. nuts, seeds, organic butter, avocados, coconut oil, olive oil), ample amounts of high-quality protein, grass-fed organic dairy (if well tolerated) and a small amount of fruit can constitute a delicious, fulfilling diet naturally free of added sugars.
A meal of grass-fed strip steak, broccoli with fresh-grated block parmesan, and a sweet potato topped with cinnamon and a small amount of coconut oil contains no added sugar. Throw some organic heavy cream on top of a small bowl of fresh summer berries, and you have yourself dessert. Now, that doesn’t sound too bad, right?
Making big changes in your health and weight loss outcomes can be successfully achieved by focusing on one habit at a time. Eliminating added sugar is one of, if not the, most important change you can make. It may sound simple, but it’s not always easy!
Arm yourself with the support of a nutrition coach and a support group of like-minded people to guide you on your way. Any weight loss and health journey is a stepwise process. Start by following the tips above, and you’ll be off to a solid start. Thanks for reading.
In health, Samantha Bielawski, Registered Dietitian
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.